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The budding resistance movement to the Taliban is building momentum in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley.

The Panjshir Valley is three hours north of Kabul and has a geographic advantage of being bordered by the Hindu Kush mountains.

On August 22, two articles about Afghanistan’s National Resistance Front appeared in the media.

One is by veteran war reporter John Simpson who wrote ‘As Afghans besiege Kabul airport to flee — others slip away to join the resistance’ for the Daily Mail.

The other is by another specialist on Afghanistan, David Loyn, writing for The Spectator: ‘Panjshir valley and the last resistance to the Taliban’.

Loyn describes the Panjshir Valley (emphases mine):

The Panjshir valley, about three hours’ drive north of Kabul, has a mythical hold on the Afghan imagination. It is a natural fortress, a long lemon-shaped valley surrounded on three sides by 13,000-foot-high mountain ridges, with the only entrance a narrow road in a deep winding gorge to the south, cut by the Panjshir river. It is a place of stunning beauty, with green fields either side of the river laden with apple blossom in the spring, irrigated by ingenious canals. The walls between the fields, and sometimes the houses themselves, are buttressed with rusting metal war remains – the wheels of a tracked vehicle, armour plating, bridges formed of shell cases.

He tells us of the resistance movement’s origins during the 1980s, when the Soviets tried to control the country:

The war became part of the fabric of Panjshir after seven failed attempts by Soviet forces to take the valley in the 1980s, and Panjshir also held out against the Taliban in the 1990s. This week it earned a new medal of honour in Afghanistan’s long wars, as the only province still standing against the Taliban.

Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the ‘Lion of Panjshir,’ has raised the flag of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan against the Taliban. He has been joined by vice president Amrullah Saleh, who declared himself president of the Afghan republic after Ashraf Ghani fled the country a week ago. Thousands of soldiers, who were not part of what the former US Afghan commander General David Petraeus called the ‘epidemic of surrender’, have rallied to the resistance banner, alongside irregular militias keen to burnish the legend of Panjshir.

The newly-formed forces have already pushed the Taliban out of three districts to the northwest of Panjshir. The districts, in the subregion of Andarab, are geographically part of the valley and so are perfectly suited to form a defensible perimeter. Taking the regions also showed an intent to widen the footprint of the resistance. This will not be a simple feat. The leadership of the resistance are largely untested. The elder Massoud, who died in 2001, studied and practised war all his life. While his son has a master’s degree in war studies at King’s College, London, he has no military experience.

The resistance also face a formidable challenge: they are landlocked in an area with no airfield. When the elder Massoud held out against Taliban rule 25 years ago, he also held Badakhshan province to the north, giving him access to the border across the Amu Darya river to Tajikistan. The people of Panjshir are ethnic Tajiks, and already the Afghan ambassador in the Tajik capital Dushanbe has put up president Saleh’s picture and declared himself part of the resistance. Saleh himself worked closely with the CIA in the 1990s, was later head of the Afghan intelligence service, and has good contacts in Tajikistan. It is likely that the first military moves of the resistance will be to break out to the north and control Badakhshan province up to the border.

Loyn says that the symbols the National Resistance Front chooses to adopt are important:

In the early confused days of the Panjshiri National Resistance Front, it is not clear if they are adopting the flag of the republic or of the Northern Alliance, the coalition of forces who battled against the Taliban in the 1990s. These symbols count. The Northern Alliance could be divisive as it was a Tajik-dominated force. If Saleh can promote himself as the head of a broader movement under the Afghan national flag he stands a better chance of success.

He says that it is important for Amrulla Saleh, former Afghan vice-president and the resistance movement leader who declared himself the new president of the Afghan republic, to take more territory so that fewer governments recognise the Taliban as Afghanistan’s ruling force.

That said, it is unclear how Tajikstan will respond, as Russia controls certain aspects of its security policy:

Russia still calls the shots in security policy in the region, and Russia has signalled that it will recognise the Taliban government and not support the Panjshiris this time, even though they supported the elder Massoud against the Taliban.

John Simpson says that Western nations should support the National Resistance Front:

just a week after the fall of Kabul a strong resistance movement is already taking shape in Afghanistan. At present it’s only a slender shaft of optimism, but it’s one that the West will want to grasp and nurture.

Every day, while crowds of desperate people besiege the airport in the hope of getting on a plane to safety, others are quietly slipping away to the Panjshir Valley, a hundred miles away to the north-east, to join the opposition.

Headed by Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former vice-president who took over when the weak, broken President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, the movement has already attracted a number of generals, their staffs and some soldiers.

They, and others, are starting to plan their next step.

He is optimistic about these men, although it’s a long-range plan:

A new version of the Northern Alliance, with the tough, courageous Hazaras fighting alongside them, will emerge from the Panjshir Valley; and at some point I’m certain they will sweep the Taliban out of Kabul.

When that will happen, I have no idea.

I wish them all the best, especially if the Hazaras join the fight.

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